Movie Review ~ Spiral: From the Book of Saw

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Working in the shadow of an esteemed police veteran, brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks and his rookie partner take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past.

Stars: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Morgan David Jones, Frank Licari, Zoie Palmer

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Sure, I’ve seen all of the films in the Saw series but with that particular franchise, it truly is a case where the old saying is true: when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  Though I enjoyed the original film from 2004 for its brazen methods of going all-out in its gory violence and clever narrative construction, the subsequent sequels were each like a new dub of the previous copy taken from an existing VHS master.  Each new entry got more and more distorted, the plots more convoluted, the acting less convincing, and the overall threads that tied the series together started to grow threadbare and snap.  By the time Saw: The Final Chapter sliced through theaters in 2010 (in 3D, natch), the viscous well had long since dried up.  When Jigsaw, a feeble attempt to shock the series back to life in 2017 during the swell of reboots failed to wake the dead, it seemed as if the plug had officially been pulled on the Saw franchise.

What happened next was a surprise to many.  Shortly after Jigsaw’s disappointing debut, Lionsgate found out they had a Saw fan in comedian Chris Rock and it just so happened the star was looking to get into the horror business.  Accepting Rock’s offer to provide a treatment to take the franchise on a new path, the studio lined up Saw II, III, and IV’s Darren Lynn Bousman (Mother’s Day) to direct and hired Piranha 3DD writers Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger to flesh out Rock’s original storyline into the full feature length version that became known as Sprial.  Tacking From the Book of Saw onto the title to fully tie the new film to the existing world confirmed Spiral would be related to the original eight films and not a reboot, and suddenly the internet was abuzz wondering how Rock and newly announced co-star Samuel L. Jackson would work their way into the Saw universe.

Delayed from it’s October 2020 release due to the pandemic, Lionsgate opted to hold off on letting their twisted game out of the bag until now and it’s good they did because the Saw films are always something of an event to see on the big screen. (Note: I say that with full acknowledgement of the hypocrisy of my watching it via a screening link at home.)  Now, audiences would be forced to witness some of the series most gruesome death devices going full bore and wouldn’t be able to simply leave the room like they could if they viewed it from the safety of their living room.  Spiral was promised to be a film that was more of a mystery than the ghastly Grand Guignol torture nastiness the previous eight films had begun to wallow in.  What a bummer to report that it’s more than a little disappointing to see before the title card is even shown a man forced to choose between ripping out his own tongue or death by subway train.

Labeled a rat by his colleagues after testifying against his crooked partner, Detective Zeke Banks (Rock, The Witches) is going through a divorce and has a strained relationship with his father (Jackson, Shaft), a former police captain of his division.  Assigned by his ball-busting captain (Marisol Nichols, Scream 2) to mentor rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella, The Internship) their first case is a doozy: identifying a homeless man run over by a train using only the bloody pieces that were salvageable.  Having seen the prologue, we know these fleshy bits used to be someone quite different and the two detectives will soon receive their first clue from a creepy killer in a pig mask that will point them in the right direction. 

Once Banks and Schenk discover the man was a cop that Banks knew well, the dominos start to fall rapidly as other members from their precinct start to die in all sorts of terrible manners.  Could this be the workings of another disciple of the long-dead killer Jigsaw or is there a copycat using the murderers methods as a cover to enact their deadly game of revenge?  With clues pointing to suspects that wind up mincemeat, Banks is left to read between the lines and remember the past if he’s to save himself and his loved ones from a killer’s deadly plans for the future. 

Had Stolberg and Goldfinger’s script stuck to the mystery angle, Spiral could have been an interesting film that benefitted from its ham-fisted bit of social commentary it clumsily thumbtacks on at the end. (Oh, it’s so stagnant you’ll groan.)  I get the feeling Rock’s original idea was far less grandiose than what Spiral turned out to be and it took the extra attention of the writers (and maybe Bousman) to make this new film fit more into the lore of the Saw films.  How else could you explain some of the random shifts in tone from detective story to the grisly reveling in brutalization?  With the previous movies, this was expected because past the second sequel they truly had no central story that made them a mystery worth solving.  Bringing in Bousman also accounts for the movie having the look of a Saw film as well, with the jittery camera angles and overall grimy feel that permeated the vibe of earlier entries…there’s little to set this one apart from the others.  Bringing someone new in, like Universal did with the 2018 Halloween, would have been an inspired choice, though Bousman is no slough as a filmmaker.

It also just has to be said that for as brilliant a comedian as Rock is and as gifted a performer he is onstage, an actor he is most definitely not.  Rock’s performance is possibly the biggest problem with the film, aside from its profound reliance on useless profanity (and this is coming from someone with a sailor’s vocabulary), and in scene after scene he drags every other actor down just as they are trying to bring him up.  Not even Jackson can rescue Rock from himself, mostly because for all the attention his casting received, Jackson is barely in the movie.   The character is just unpleasant.  In the process of creating a new direction for the series, did no one remember to think up a leading man that audiences would enjoy as well? 

Even the solution to Spiral is met with sort of a indifference and the typical zip-zap-here-are-the-closing-credits wrap-up.  As much as the star, filmmakers, and studio touted Spiral as being different than what has come before, it is shockingly stuck in the past and falls into the same trap as the later sequels when the franchise was already on tenuous ground.  I expected a great deal more from all involved and if it’s true like one character says everything is in a spiral and comes back around, I’m hoping the next film really does return to what captured our attention back in 2004 when the game being played required more brains than…well, literal brains.

Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors only to witness a disturbing act of violence.

Stars: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Once upon a time, the big screen adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel would have been cause for some semblance of celebration.  Bringing to life characters readers had only imagined and finding the right way to recreate the puzzle the author had designed might be a challenge but when everything lined up perfectly the result was a surefire blockbuster that left fans of the novel happy and movie studios flush with cash.  Saturation of the market over the past decade has led to novels being written like adaptations of movie scripts…almost like the writers were already imagining the hefty checks they’d receive for selling the rights to the film versions.  So, while we’d get the rare winner like David Fincher’s sleek take on Gillian Flynn’s unstoppable hit Gone Girl and, to a lesser extent, an effectively serviceable read on Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train two years later, the number of page to screen adaptations was on the decline.

While it wasn’t ever going to change the dial significantly on this downward trend, 20th Century Fox’s release of A.J. Finn’s megahit novel The Woman in the Window at least represented a rarefied bit of sophistication in a genre that wasn’t always known for its refinement.  Helmed by Joe Wright, a director with a fine track record for telling visually appealing films that had a deeply rooted emotional core and adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also appears in the film), no stranger himself to adapting work for other mediums, the film seemed like it had prestige in its very building blocks.  Add in a coveted cast with a combined total of 14 Oscar nominations between them and you can see why initial buzz had this, like Gone Girl, on many an early shortlist as potential awards candy upon its release. 

Then the problems began.

First, and this was going on even before the film got off the ground, author A.J. Finn was revealed to be a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, an executive editor at publisher William Morrow and Company who published the novel.  Mallory’s shady past came to light in a earth scorching article published in the New Yorker which detailed how he very likely lied, cheated, and schemed his way through his educational upbringing and career to date.  That this was reignited during the film’s production did no favors for it’s promotional promises.  Then early test screenings received poor scores leading to reshoots and rewrites, which isn’t uncommon, but the poisonous word spread fast that the movie was in trouble. 

Caught in the crosshairs of the Fox/Disney merger, the finished film languished in limbo until Disney sold it off to Netflix who adios-ed a theatrical release because of the pandemic and is now releasing it a full year after its originally announced date.  Adding unspoken insult to injury, the cast and production team are doing no press for the film…making it look like no one has any confidence in it.   Really, who can blame them?  The past year the film has been made a mockery of by gossip hungry columnists, bloggers, and podcasters and the punchline of many jokes at its expense.  The movie and its actors have been set-up to fail, and I’d say that many of those reviewing the film are going in prepared to dislike it and ravage it just because it’s an easy target. 

I’m happy to spoil their fun and report that The Woman in the Window isn’t anywhere as bad as we’ve been led to believe nor is it even a minor misstep compared to some of the dreck major studios still put out and screen a number of times before opening wide.  A film lost in the shuffle of studios in flux and the victim of negative press because of its author, the tumble it has taken shouldn’t be a signifier of the quality of the effort of those involved.  It may take a while for the cord to be pulled tight for viewers, but once Wright (Anna Karenina) and Letts (Lady Bird) stop trying to find a way to emulate Finn’s inner monologue narrative of the leading lady and start bringing their own strengths to their responsibilities, the movie truly takes off with a bang.

Agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, American Hustle) doesn’t have much to do but wander around her spacious NY brownstone in between getting blackout drunk on glasses of wine and watching film noir.  Separated from her husband and her child because of a trauma that slowly comes into focus, her fear of leaving the house has gotten so bad she can’t even take one step out of her front door without passing out from anxiety.  One of her comforts is keeping track of the goings-on in the neighborhood and its her luck the house across the street has a new family that will soon become a major part of her life. 

She first meets Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger, News of the World) when he comes to drop off a housewarming gift and shortly thereafter meets his mother (Julianne Moore, Still Alice).  When Alastair Russell (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour) pays her a visit, his greeting is chillier which might explain why Anna sees the family fighting later and then a scream in the night followed by what looks like Ethan’s mother covered in blood.  Calling the police (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) to investigate turns up nothing suspicious in the house but a different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) claiming to be Alastair’s wife.  Convinced of what she saw and determined to prove the Russell’s are hiding something, Anna does what she can from the confines of her house to find out what happened to the woman she met days earlier.  However, with her new neighbors on to her snooping, a basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) with a violent past, and secrets of her own that may implicate more than we’re aware of initially, is there any one person we can honestly trust?

Fans of the book will be pleased with the way Letts brought Finn’s book to life, tightening up some of the crinkly edges of his storytelling and removing complexities that made an already hard to swallow situation that much more far-fetched.  It’s still achingly reminiscent of third-rate Hitchcock (take a shot every time you think of Vertigo or Rear Window…and for that matter drink a whole whiskey highball for the film’s outright duplication of 1995’s excellent CopyCat) but considering how chintzy it could have been in less assured hands, this comes off as far classier than it has any right to be. 

Speaking of (W)right, credit goes to the director for elevating the film with his eye for detail and willingness to take chances on some striking visuals that leave an impression.  No spoilers but at one point Anna sees something inside the brownstone that shouldn’t be there, and it’s so beautifully shot that you forget for a moment you’re watching a thriller.  In the same breath, I’ll say there’s also an icky bit of cheek-y gruesomeness that was so shocking I gasped…and not one of those quick whisps of air kind of gasps but the type you hear when you’ve been underwater for three minutes and just reached the surface.

Did anyone come out of Hillbilly Elegy looking as bad as Adams?  Say what you will about the source material, some of director Ron Howard’s choices, and a few of the supporting performances, but for an established actress like Adams to turn in such a tacky routine was incredibly disappointing.  In all honesty, The Woman in the Window doesn’t start out great for her either and I began to wonder if Adams hadn’t lost a little of that luster that made her so appealing when she burst onto the scene.  I don’t know if it was because later in the film is where the reshoots happened or what, but the latter half of the movie is when Adams appears to not be taking the role to the mat like it’s her Oscar bid for the year.  This is not an awards type of film and by the time they got to reshoots I think she knew it…so she’s much more game to lean into the Olivia de Havilland/Barbara Stanwyck type of character this is modeled after.  Having the most fun of everyone is Moore, kicking up her heels and really enjoying the free spirit of her character – it’s the most relaxed the actress has been in a long while and it was fun to watch.  Not having any fun?  Oldman, white-haired, crazy-eyed, and wild-voiced, his performance looks cobbled together from all of his bad takes.

Is The Woman in the Window in the same league as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, two other novels turned films with leading characters that are unreliable in their narration and unlikable at times?  For my money, I’d put this on the level of The Girl on the Train as an adaptation that has come to the screen with promise that is mostly fulfilled.  It’s a better adaptation than The Girl on the Train was, that’s for sure, and to equate the movie with the failings of its author is wrongheaded.  The mystery at its core is kept decently secure until the finale and while you won’t be biting your nails with suspense throughout, it builds to a proper climax that proved satisfying.  Released as part of Netflix’s summer movie season, it’s a solid selection for a weekend viewing – especially considering many would have paid more than the price of a monthly subscription to the service to see it in theaters anyway.